A bad week for Joan Acocella

The Baltimore Sun

Since Joan Acocella of The New Yorker reviewed The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings, which she appears not to have understood, she has been subjected to a rare old pounding. 

Jan Freeman disparaged the shallowness of her article at Throw Grammar From the Train, and I could not resist chiming in myself

Since then, the heavy artillery has been limbered up. At Language Log, Mark Liberman concluded that "the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved." 

When one speaks of "rules" in language, he patiently explains, one has to realize that there are two types, "the emergent regularities of living language, including vernacular varieties of language," which linguists study, and "invented stipulations about allegedly proper usage, promulgated by explicit instruction," the area in which editors and style guides operate. 

Warming to the subject in a second post, "A half century of usage denialism," he suggests that Ms. Acocella's willful misreading of the texts she cites and her snide tone about what she imagines descriptivists to be are representative of the culture of her magazine. He quotes a 1958 letter from E.B. White to his publisher with remarks about "the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow," and "the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists." He finds the same attitude in Ms. Acocella's weird "view that publishers are conspiring behind the scenes to placate hypocritical liberal descriptivists, 'little men' who believe that 'anything goes.' "

Commenting at length on the post, Deniz Rudin says, "Descriptivism and prescriptivism are not the same type of thing. Descriptivism is an investigatory approach to the formal study of language, and it is uncontroversial in linguistics departments because it is the only sane approach—nobody opposes descriptivism in biology, or argues for a prescriptivist physics. Prescriptivism, on the other hand, is a branch of etiquette columnry—prescriptivists advise us of what the more embarrassing solecisms are, so that we can in avoiding them be judged by the cultured to be one of their own."

Not that I am wild about seeing my career as a professional editor dismissed as "etiquette columnry," but there is a point to that. Editing, though a prescriptive activity, is not a matter of merely following The Rules. It encompasses judgments of taste and register and audience and occasion. I enforce stylebook guidelines without granting them the status of Newtonian physics. I cut and reword texts unapologetically, without imagining that the preferences for this particular occasion should govern all writing in English everywhere.

Besides, scorning the vernacular is bad policy; the vernacular has a peculiar tendency to infiltrate the formal.   

It is deeply regrettable that The New Yorker allowed such a shoddy piece of work to see print. And it is no favor to the memory of E.B. White, an admirable, thoughtful, and humane writer, to enshrine his mistaken attitudes about language and usage.



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